A troubled Jewish-American energy tycoon has disappeared off the coast of Florida, leaving an Israeli soccer team he sponsors in the lurch.
Guma Aguiar, 34, was last seen alive on his yacht, which washed ashore without him on June 20th. His family says he suffers from mental illness.
Aguiar made his fortune in his twenties when he and his uncle discovered a rich vein of natural gas in Texas. The pair sold their find for $2.55 billion in 2007.
Now a wealthy man, the Brazilian-born Aguiar moved to Israel in 2008 so he could be “closer to God.” He soon gained a reputation as a prominent philanthropist, giving $8 million to a charity that encourages Jews to emigrate to Israel. The donation made big news, coming as it did in the midst of a recession.
The next year, Aguiar made a $4 million investment in Beitar Jerusalem, a popular Israeli soccer team on the verge of financial collapse.
Aguiar’s intervention made him a hero to Beitar’s fans. It also injected him into the heart of Israeli politics. In Israel, as in many soccer-playing nations, most clubs are aligned with a specific ethnic, religious, socio-economic or political group.
Since their founding in 1936, Beitar have been the team of Israel’s right-wing. Over the last few years, their fans have taken on an especially ultra-nationalist bent, chanting anti-Arab slogans during matches, verbally abusing foreign players and getting involved in mass brawls. None of it has helped the team, which finished 11th (of 16) in the 2011-2012 Israeli Premier League.
Now, owner Arcadi Gaydamak says he will give the club away for free to anyone who can pay off its substantial debts. As of yet, no one has come forward.
Without Aguiar’s fortune, it’s not clear that Beitar can survive. So what happened to him?
Mystery on the high seas
Surveillance video from a South Florida port shows Aguiar piloting his 31-foot yacht into stormy seas late on the night of June 19th. The boat washed up near Fort Lauderdale the next day with his phone and wallet still on-board. Authorities called off their search after two days.
“Nothing’s been settled,” Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Travis Mandell told Latitude News. “We are scouring over GPS and cell phone data. There is no evidence of foul play. We are continuing our investigation, and Mr. Aguiar remains a missing person.”
Aguiar was known for increasingly erratic behavior over the past few years. His uncle is suing him for control of their Leor Energy company. A court document filed by Aguiar’s mother claims he may be alive and in a “delusional state or suffering from psychosis.” She is currently suing her daughter-in-law for control of her son’s $100 million estate.
Soccer and politics
Aguiar’s charitable donations and his investment in Beitar allowed him to enter Israel’s highest social circles. In an interview on Fox News, Mike Huckabee called him “a young Israeli version of T. Boone Pickens and Jerry Jones.”
But the Cowboys never had fans like these. Beitar supporters have a lengthy rap sheet: in March, hundreds of Beitar fans assaulted Arab janitors at a mall in Jerusalem. The cleaning staff defended themselves with brooms but were soon overwhelmed and badly beaten.
In April, Beitar fans marched through the streets chanting anti-Arab slogans and attacked an Israeli woman who tried to shout them down. They are also notorious for making monkey noises at black players, including Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Nigerian-born striker Toto Tamuz (Tamuz used to play for Beitar, where he was a fan favorite, and he has represented Israel’s national team). Abbas Suana, an Israeli Arab who has also played for his country, called Beitar “the most dangerous team in the Israeli league.”
But it’s not just the fans who are at fault. Beitar is the only club in Israel that has never fielded an Arab player, a policy Newsweek describes as “reminiscent of Apartheid or Jim Crow.”
Club owner Arcadi Gaydamak, a Russian-Israeli businessman who was wanted in France for fraud, tried to change that policy in 2009. But fans protested his decision and transfer offers for Arab players were soon withdrawn. Gaydamak says he invested almost $100 million into Beitar since buying the club seven years ago, but poor management meant much of that money was wasted (except for an impressive league and cup double in 2007-8).
Back when the club was winning trophies, Gaydamak tried to cachet his footballing success into a run for mayor of Jerusalem. But he received only four percent of the vote, and it’s been downhill for him and Beitar ever since. In 2009, Gaydamak said he could no longer afford to support the club, leading to a crisis Aguiar resolved with his last minute investment.
In contrast to Gaydamak, the fun-loving Aguiar claimed to be uninterested in politics, telling an Israeli reporter: ”the only party I’m interested in forming is — a party.” But the American’s bizarre behavior soon raised eyebrows in his new home.
Among the strangest episodes was an incident in 2010 when Aguiar claimed he had single-handedly tried to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas. His family soon had him hospitalized and revealed that he suffers from bipolar disorder and depression.
Beitar isn’t the only sports club in trouble because of its benefactor’s unexplained disappearance. Aguiar has another investment in struggling Hapoel Jersualem, a basketball team also left in debt by Gaydamak. But even without Aguiar, the Israeli-American sports connection in the city remains strong. Hapoel’s star shooting guard, D.J. Strawberry, is the son of New York Mets legend Darryl.